In reporting so widely on Hollywood’s private life, Hedda Hopper largely succeeded in distracting attention from her own. But if you think that the memoirs of her only husband (divorced 1921) will shed any light on the glamorous but widely detested columnist, you will draw blank. The actor DeWolfe Hopper manages to deliver a detailed book of reminiscences without mentioning one word about Hedda or the rest of his six wives.
So it’s just a career-chronicle, by someone whose name does not echo much in the annals of showbusiness, though it sometimes leaves us wondering why not. Because Hopper seems to have been quite a guy, having not only a famously commanding presence (at six foot five) but a splendid ringing baritone, generally credited as the Voice of the Nineties.
Looking back over a long life on the stage, Hopper avoids undue nostalgia, acknowledging the tiresome routines of going on tour, with broken-down trains, draughty hotels, sometimes pay-packets going missing. But he thinks the movies have destroyed America’s nationwide theatre network, depriving young actors of a chance to learn their trade. (He is writing in 1926, just before the Talkies, so he may have gone on to change his views.) Interestingly, he remembers this happening before, when the roller-skating craze “had the theatre on its back for three years”, something we don’t always think of, as it also doesn’t occur to us that the game of baseball once had its own poet laureate. He was a shy little fellow who could never have got up and recited his own work in public - so, who better than Hopper to declaim the cherished verses of ‘Casey at the Bat’?
If this was the first-ever baseball poem, then it deserves credit, but I think it creaks, as Newbolt’s immortal school-cricket verse from a few years later (‘There’s a breathless hush in the close…’) does not. Yet it followed Hopper wherever he went. For the rest of his life, he would not be allowed to leave any stage without giving them his famous rendering of it.
Only the last section of the book disappoints, because it is all about social life, which does not translate well into memoirs - the reader is simply not able to share the experiences that so excite the writer. But the book as a whole provides plenty of insights into the acting craft, drawn from a long life in the theatre, wholeheartedly lived.